‘Bordertown’ Hits Barriers
If you’re inclined to believe it, the sound of overhead planes patrolling the porous border of U.S. and Mexico here can sound like an alien spaceship. Some might even suggest that’s why Marshall Applewhite chose this region for the farewell performance of his cult, Heaven’s Gate. Blissed-out false paradise, or troubled center of U.S. immigration policy, San Diego is in both cases the subject of “Bordertown,” the new show from the three-man comedy troupe known as Culture Clash.
As they did with Miami in “Radio Mambo,” their 1994 show, Culture Clash puts together a picture of a city by giving us information and impersonations they’ve collected from interviews with the people of San Diego and also of nearby Tijuana. They waggishly intersperse fictional comedy bits, so that a talking Shamu--SeaWorld’s trademark killer whale worried about “wetback whales” taking his job away from him--shares the stage at the San Diego Repertory with more serious documentary-style subjects, such as a 15-year-old Mexican girl who walked over miles of rugged mountain terrain in order to work as a maid in La Jolla.
The result is a show with a tone problem, one that aims for cheerful seriousness but ends up lacking cohesion. The men of Culture Clash--Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza--want to both educate and entertain, desires that sometimes conflict. Is the taxi driver who loves one-liners a real or fictional person? It’s unclear. Is the brutish volunteer border guard exaggerated for comedy’s sake? It appears so. When are we to take what we’re seeing as literal truth?
Directed by Sam Woodhouse, artistic director at the San Diego Rep, Culture Clash offers its usual infectious high spirits and deadpan quick-change routines. As writers, they can fashion a good, clean, funny skit. They become abruptly and appropriately sober when depicting the Mattel factory worker in Tijuana who leaves her four children alone all night while she makes tiny accessories for Barbie that cost about her week’s pay--$40. But they do not offer a cohesive, original overview to tie the show’s disparate pieces together.
The troupe will no doubt be tired of comparisons to Anna Deavere Smith, a pioneer in interview-portrait theater. But one can’t help but notice they do not possess her gift for giving equivalent moral weight and serious consideration to each of her subjects. In “Bordertown,” some people get unalloyed halos, like the three activists who helped paint the Chicano Park murals on the freeway supports of the Coronado Bay Bridge. Others, such as a rich La Jolla lady whose attempt at community service was abruptly ended when she was told to “go home,” are dismissed as not important enough to understand.
In one scene, Salinas and Siguenza play two white women complaining about the crime that has come into their neighborhood with a new wave of immigrants, and then swivel around on a bench to play the immigrants themselves, a Panamanian and a Nigerian man. The men are touchingly sweet and strong and hopeful, the women whiny and ungenerous. One woman relates a mugging, which is presented without regard for whatever fear she might have felt at the time. It’s believable that their interviews may have panned out this way. But if Culture Clash is to go beyond reportage and help its audience better understand an intricate racial situation, it needs to look beyond standard typecasting.
A few characters emerge as insightful philosophers. One, a skateboarder of indeterminate age, says the city “tries to be bohemian but cannot.” It “suffers from an inferiority complex,” he says, because it does not embrace its indigenous nature. Until it does that, it will “continue to gyrate in its own ghosts.”
“Bordertown” could use more thoughtful analysis and less of the three totally, like, ignorant surfer dudes who appear at the 11th hour, just when some kind of conclusion should be building.
But the analysis actually provided by Culture Clash--in its fictional sketches and in the shaping of the documentary material at hand--is very broad. One skit depicts a husband and wife sleeping on opposite sides of a barbed wire fence. He symbolizes America, wrapped in the flag of his country; she is Mexico, wrapped in the flag of hers. He confesses that he needs his wife but is embarrassed by her. She reveals that she always plays the victim when she is with him, and she’s not sure why. They dance; he leads. It’s a political cartoon come to life--but not as pithy.
A purple-robed Marshall Applewhite (Siguenza) makes three appearances, advocating a place with no borders and no race. Reflected in his bug-eyed expression, this idea doesn’t look so great. One of the Chicano Park muralists offers himself up as a kind of a bridge to something better, but to what, we’re not sure. In the end, we leave “Bordertown” feeling like we’ve witnessed a genial celebration of a culture but not with a deeper understanding of a border city, a melting pot that refuses to melt.
“Culture Clash in Bordertown,” San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. and Tue., 7 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; also June 3 and June 17, 2 p.m. Ends June 28. $20-$30. (619) 544-1000. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
A San Diego Repertory Theatre production. Written by and starring Culture Clash--Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza. Directed by Sam Woodhouse. Sets and costumes Christopher Acebo. Lights Jeff Rowlings. Sound Randy Cohen and Pea Hicks. Consulting visual artist Davis Avalos. Stage manager Alexis Randolph.
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